Warning that the COVID-19 pandemic 'continues to pose unprecedented risks to travelers,' the State Department this week 'strongly' recommended US citizens reconsider all travel abroad.
Following or at odds with CDC?
Confoundingly, this came slightly two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidance that Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can travel 'at low risk to themselves' in the US and abroad.
All the US-based cruise lines that have announced offshore sailings have vaccination mandates, at least for travelers over 16, and a few for all travelers, meaning no children for now. All intend to have their crew on these ships vaccinated, as well.
80% of countries at Level 4: Do Not Travel
The State Department didn't make any reference to vaccination. However, its update resulted in a significant increase in the number of countries at Level 4: Do Not Travel, to approximately 80% of countries worldwide.
Also confounding, 'This does not imply a reassessment of the current health situation in a given country, but rather reflects an adjustment in the State Department’s Travel Advisory system to rely more on CDC’s existing epidemiological assessments,' the Department said.
Among the places newly added to Level 4: the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Mexico, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
These are all homeports or destinations for a small but growing number of ships from US-based lines like Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Seabourn and Silversea Cruises.
Some of these lines have reported record bookings, begging the question how much influence and impact do COVID-19 travel advisories have?
Impactful or ho-hum?
It used to be that State Department warnings were extremely impactful to the travel business. But Seatrade Cruise News found an almost ho-hum reaction to these latest alerts. Another symptom of COVID fatigue?
'I really don’t have a great handle on this — not sure anyone does,' said Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network. 'I don’t want to disparage the folks whose job it is to make these decisions, but nothing about COVID makes sense to me …I haven’t understood much of the way countries have been “rated” through this.'
'Eighty percent of the world is at Level 4 including the US,' another source said, adding that situations are evolving and cruise lines will continue to monitor things. 'We don’t foresee this being an issue,' he said of the new advisories.
Weeks or months to go before cruises start
Some cruise lines and travel sellers didn't want to touch the issue, but others pointed to the fact that offshore cruises are still weeks or months away, that people will be vaccinated and that there's confidence in the effectiveness of planned protocols based on the experiences of ships that are already sailing.
Royal Caribbean International has cruises open to Americans that will sail from the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cyprus, all Level 4.
'In designing our preventative measures, we thoughtfully created a multi-layered approach that could and would evolve with the science and changing situations around the world,' a Royal Caribbean International spokeswoman said. 'When combined with the vaccination requirement for all crew and adult guests — not to mention the requirements of the homeport country — we are confident that we can offer a safe and healthy experience for vacationers this summer.
'Our healthy sailing measures are informed by the Healthy Sail Panel, developed with guidance from public health experts and our Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson, and approved by health authorities around the world,' she continued. 'Together, we are navigating through the ever-evolving information that tells us what will help reduce the chances of COVID-19 impacting any cruise.'
The spokeswoman added that Royal Caribbean promises travelers on confirmed cruises to share the latest health safety requirements within 30 days of sailing.
Just today, Seabourn announced its second ship to resume service will be on Barbados-based itineraries, following the first, on Greece-Cyprus cruises. All of Seabourn's destinations in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean are at Level 4, apart from three: the British Virgin Islands and St. Maarten at Level 3: Reconsider Travel and St. Kitts at Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.
'Seabourn’s first scheduled departures are set for July and we anticipate that, with the efforts being undertaken by many governments around the world to help control COVID-19, these advisories may change based upon improvements in the coming months,' spokesman Brian Badura said.
Seabourn's cruises are open to vaccinated travelers, and crew will be vaccinated.
Same thing for Crystal Cruises.
Crystal, which will homeport at Nassau for an all-Bahamas program and at Antigua, also has many Level 4 destinations in addition to the homeports themselves, while its all-Iceland cruises will sail from a country the US currently puts at Level 3.
'No difference in bookings'
Spokeswoman Susan Robison said Crystal has seen 'no difference in our bookings' since the new advisories were issued.
'We have received a few calls but when we reiterate our comprehensive health and safety protocols, along with our mandatory vaccinations and the timeframe of July and August, our guests and travel advisors are reassured in our plans,' Robison said.